Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Lord Oates Portrait Lord Oates (LD)
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My Lords, like other Members of this House I feel a sense of profound shock at the rise in anti-Semitism since the appalling attacks of 7 October. As my noble friend Lord Palmer of Childs Hill said, the Jewish community feels increasingly and understandably beleaguered, and we must do all we can to support it. But, like my noble friend, I believe that this is a very bad Bill and I do not believe it will do anything to combat anti-Semitism. Indeed, I fear it will do the opposite.

If that were not bad enough, the Bill tramples on fundamental rights of free speech and peaceful protest, provides extraordinary powers to Ministers and enforcement authorities and, as my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire points out, effectively introduces an offence of thought crime. Above all, it is an ill-considered mess of misjudgments, prejudices and confusions, all competing to contradict one another.

In 1988 I spent some time teaching in a rural school in Zimbabwe. When I was there, one of the students asked me to try to visit his father in South Africa. This was in the dying days of the apartheid regime, although that was not at all clear then. There was a state of emergency, and I saw at first hand the vile nature of that regime.

When I came back to the UK, my first engagement in campaigning was on the milk crates outside South Africa House and in the boycotts of the student Anti- Apartheid Movement, inspired very much by campaigners such as the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Boateng, who spoke so powerfully. My decisions about boycotting South African goods were personal and were motivated by political and moral disapproval. They did not represent my individual foreign policy; they represented my moral and political disapproval. Thank goodness that local authorities, from Lambeth to Sheffield, Glasgow and all around the country, were prepared to stand up and make their voice heard.

Some years later, I had the privilege of working in the first democratic Parliament in South Africa. I can absolutely attest to what the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, said: the absolute saving grace of the UK was that local authorities and others had been prepared to take financial decisions on the basis of moral and political disapproval when, sadly, our Government were not prepared to do that and were seen as an aider and abetter of the apartheid regime.

Much was made, both in the Second Reading debate in the other place and repeated by the Minister today, about not having rival foreign policies, but Clause 3(7) conflates Israel and the Occupied Territories, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark pointed out. This seems to represent the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities running an alternative foreign policy to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, rather than local authorities doing the same. That has really grave implications. I hope that the Minister can tell us what representations have been received from British diplomatic posts across the globe about the impacts of this Bill, which goes absolutely contrary to Resolution 2334 and other international obligations, as other noble Lords have said.

When I picked up the Bill, I was concerned that it seemed pretty worrying, but when I looked through it and I read just some of the clause headings, as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, such as “Disapproval of foreign state conduct” and “Related prohibition on statements”, it brought to mind exactly that apartheid regime in South Africa. These are the sorts of clauses that you would find in the law and order amendments Acts, and of which John Vorster and Hendrik Verwoerd would have been proud.

We have to think very carefully about the precedents that we are setting in this Bill. As we have heard, not only would it prevent local authorities taking financial decisions of the form we have debated but it prohibits people stating that they would have acted in such a way if they had been able to, but they could not do so because it was not lawful. The Minister tried to make a distinction and claim that a local authority leader, for example, could state that they were in favour of a boycott or investment decisions about a particular territory if they did so in their personal capacity. But if somebody said, for example, “I don’t believe in investing in the Occupied Territories or Xinjiang”, their constituents asked, “Then why is your local authority not following that belief?”, and they said, “Because the law doesn’t allow me to”, they would commit an offence under the Bill, if I understand it rightly, subject to an unlimited fine. That is extraordinary. It is even worse than that, because it is not just if you say that—this is where the thought crime comes in—but if it is thought that you are likely to say something like that, and if you are thought likely to contravene the applicable provision of the Bill.

We will go through this in much greater detail in Committee, but this is a hugely flawed Bill. It is massively politically divisive at a time when there is no need for political division because, as the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and the Official Opposition Front Bench have made clear, people are happy to come together to try to address the actual issue without bringing about these draconian rules, which have absolutely no place in our democracy.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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That is my sense, but I will obviously check where we are. I would also make it clear that things such as conference centres and so on are obviously outside the remit. I will come back to the noble Lord on the exact definition, if I may, and we can perhaps discuss it in Committee in any event.

I will now address concerns that this Bill represents a change in the UK’s foreign policy. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and others, will be pleased to know that the Government have been clear throughout the Bill’s passage that nothing in this Bill changes the UK’s position on Israeli settlements. They are illegal under international law, present an obstacle to peace and threaten the viability of a two-state solution. The Government continue to urge Israel to halt settlement expansion immediately.

I reassure the House that the Government’s assessment is that the Bill distinguishes between Israel and the territories it has occupied since 1967. It is therefore compliant with UN Security Council Resolution 2334. The Government believe very strongly in the importance of complying with international obligations under the UN Charter.

Lord Oates Portrait Lord Oates (LD)
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Could the Minister tell us how the Bill distinguishes this, because the clause applies to them all equally? Could she set that out?